I have been anticipating the release of this book since about 2009, when I realised that Nix intended on writing more Old Kingdom stories.
Last year, I was lucky enough to obtain a sneaklet of the first two chapters of the book, at another Garth Nix event, which I posted about here. The official publication date of Clariel is October 2nd, but I was lucky enough to be able to pick up a copy at a book signing event in Dublin, so I had Clariel in my hands on September 25th, and had finished it by September 26th. This was probably my most anticipated book of the year, and so it’s probably also the fastest I’ve reviewed a book all year, too.
Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. And in Belisaere she is forced to follow the plans, plots and demands of everyone, from her parents to her maid, to the sinister Guildmaster Kilip. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. It seems too that the city itself is descending into chaos, as the ancient rules binding Abhorsen, King and Clayr appear to be disintegrating.
With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source. But the help comes at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her – and it is herself she must question most of all.
Unusually for a review, since I normally have ebooks, I’ve got a few points about the actual print edition of this book. It’s a HotKey trade paperback, meaning that there’s been a change in publisher from the first three Old Kingdom books, which were published by Harper Collins. That’s not the worst in the world, because the cover design for this edition was based on the original Sabriel cover design, even down to the spot-laminated Charter Marks. It’s very cool-looking, although the charter marks aren’t on the back cover, and they don’t reach the top or bottom of the front cover. Even still, though, it’s a very good-looking book.
I was very surprised that the first edition is a trade paperback – it’s taller than either my Lirael or Abhorsen first-edition hardbacks, and taller by far than Sabriel or Across the Wall, both of which I have in paperback. I appreciate the continuity in cover design, though, even if there are minor differences in height and format.
As for the story itself – I thoroughly enjoyed it. Clariel, as most people know well, tells the origin story of a, quite frankly terrifying, character from the Old Kingdom trilogy, one which was hinted (by Mogget) to have quite the backstory. The book starts off with seventeen(not sixteen, as the blurb says)-year-old Clariel in the royal city of Belisaere, six hundred years before the Old Kingdom trilogy. It’s a bustling, thriving, really different city to what we’ve seen in the Old Kingdom – before the Interregnum and the fall of the Regency, without broken Charter Stones all around the land and in a Kingdom where a Dead thing hasn’t been seen in years, it’s a hugely different (and hugely interesting) look at the Old Kingdom, with a, quite frankly, disagreeable protagonist.
Clariel is headstrong, independent, possibly asexual, and really interesting to read about, but she’s also a really cantankerous and disagreeable teenage girl. Having been forced to move away from my home when I was a teenager, I can understand this, and it makes her all the more real to relate to.
Living in Belisaere quickly becomes dangerous for Clariel, and we get to see more of the Old Kingdom again as Clariel begins on the path which will lead her to becoming the character we’ve met before. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say more than that.
I loved the extension of the world in Clariel, and I loved the character of Clariel, too. I really enjoyed learning more about Free Magic, about the Abhorsens and about what Belisaere was like as a thriving city, before the ruin of the Interregnum.
My only disappointment with the book was that it didn’t go far enough – we saw only one episode in Clariel’s life, and although it’s clear where she’s going (since we know the endpoint), I really would have liked to see how Clariel continued along the path she took the first steps on in this novel.
It’s for this reason that I don’t feel like I can give Clariel the same all-star rating that the Old Kingdom trilogy gets from me. Yes, it’s definitely one of my favourite books this year, and yes I thoroughly recommend it. From any other author I’d be giving it a rave review, but I think in this instance that I was just a tiny bit disappointed in Nix. I know it’s not any fun to tell the whole story, you have to let the reader guess some things, but I would’ve liked to see Clariel take one or two more steps along the path we know she takes.
I also have a complaint about the sub-title of the book, but enumerating that would be really too much of a spoiler. Suffice it to say that something I would’ve expected to come to pass from what I had read thus far did not do so, and I was a little surprised.
Still a wonderful book, and a gorgeous look at the earlier years of the Old Kingdom.